The Virginia Ballet Company's production of "The Nutcracker" opens at 8 p.m. tomorrow. Other performances are at 2 p.m. Dec. 27, 28 and 29 and at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Dec. 30. All performances are at W. T. Woodson High School, 9525 Main Street, Fairfax. Tickets are $3.50 and $4.50; seating available at the door. There are no special prices for children.

Throughout the Washington area, Peter Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" ballet appears this week with pagentry, puppetry and pep. Mikhail Baryshnikov and his lengendary leaps lead the traditional work at the Kennedy Center, and the Bob Brown Marionettes are pulling their strings this weekend in Reston and McLean.

But for a performance that truly speaks to the childish heart, go see the Virginia Ballet Company's 15th annual production in Fairfax. That version employs only these with proven expertise in the childlike -- namely, children.

The company's students, aged 6 through 18, have been practicing since summer for this crackerjack show and are ready to turn on the magic for Northern Virginia audiences.

The story of the Nutcracker starts with the familiar scene, set against one of set designer Charles Vaughan's beautiful backdrops. We see a Christmas party filled with nearly every student of the Virginia Ballet Company (some 150 munchkins in all). Also on the crammed stage is a fresh-faced, dark-haired little girl named Clara (played with a remarkably fine reserve by Heather Haskell) and her ornery brother Fritz (Evin How).

Both Haskell and How have a clear understanding of the awkwardness and frustration involved in being a child, and show this through their comical dancing.

During the party, Fritz -- already acting like a little boy stuck in a blue velvet suit -- grabs one of his sister's presents (the Nutcracker) and breaks it. The satisfaction this brings is engulfed by his parents' anger over his act; what's worse, the fellow who brought Clara the Nutcracker manages to get it fixed. So much for the joys of childhood.

Adults who have had no trouble following the story so far are warned to warm up their child-like imagination; the plot pirouettes at this point, and fantasy reigns. Your clue is that Clara falls asleep; what follows is the kind of dream devised by a tummy full of Christmas candy and a mind full of Christmas hope.

First, some really creepy, pink mice come out to do battle with mechanical, enpointee soldiers, The Mouse King (Sandy Fallon), a wonderfully animated character with an overblown papier-mache head, takes on Clara's toy Nutcracker.

With Clara's help, the Nutcracker casts the fatal blow, all the mice disperse and the toy is transformed into a good-looking Prince (played by George Kitchen) whose chief job is to accompany Clara through what remains of the story.

This brings us to Act II, where the plot has pretty much petered out and the stars of the company are filling in. Theoretically, Clara is traveling to the Land of Fantasy; actually, she's watching some nifty dancers in fabulous costumes.

First, she goes through a Snow Forest filled with Snow Flakes. The stage is filled with agile girls in white tutus and little crowns, all dancing on toe. The costumes, designed by Anna Rousseau, are everything you dream about in ballet -- satiny, glittering tops with layers and layers of netting for the skirts.

And the dances themselves are just hard enough that the girls really had to work to get them right, but easy enough that teens can pull them off without looking unprofessional. One pas de deux, danced with intense delight by Snow Queen Susan Rolfe and helper Barry Meyer, should drift through your children's dreams for weeks.

Others approach the level of professionals, like the dance of the Sugar Rose, done with sharp control by Christina Zwart.And the Spanish Chocolates (John Norvelle and Sandy Fallon) are as funny and thrilling as the flamenco dancing they parody.

What the dancers lack in professionalism -- and this isn't much, under the expert direction of French-trained Tania Rousseau and Oleg Tupine -- they made up for in sincerity. The whole troupe knows what it is doing and strives to do it well, and the youngest dancers, brought on stage in simple walks and curtsies, are, well, darling.

What the ballet lacks in reasonableness -- and this is much -- it makes up for in tradition. Like any custom, going to see The Nutcracker is habit-forming, and the Virginia Ballet Company's version does nothing to break the habit.